Not such an ivory tower

4th December 1998 at 00:00
The belief that teachers pay less heed to research findings than other professional groups such as doctors has been challenged by a new study.

The survey of teachers' and doctors' reading habits was prompted by Professor David Hargreaves' controversial criticisms which triggered the Government's current attempt to reform the way that educational research is commissioned, conducted and disseminated.

"In medicineIthere is little difference between researchers and users: all are practitioners," he said in his 1996 Teacher Training Agency lecture. "In education, by contrast, researchers are rarely users and so there are major problems of communication."

But Professor Hargreaves' argument appears to be more true for surgeons than it is for GPs, judging by a pilot study carried out by Dr Andrew Hannan of Plymouth University, and two medical doctors, Helen Enright and Paul Ballard.

The study's authors are loath to make generalisations as their samples were small - 35 teachers, 25 surgeons and eight GPs - and represented only a minority of the teachers and GPs they contacted. But they say: "One reading of the results of this pilot study . . . suggests that teachers are not, perhaps, so dismissive of the contribution of current education research in comparison to doctors as Hargreaves leads us to expect."

They found that both GPs and surgeons did read the British Medical Journal, but 33 of the 35 teachers who responded also said they read research reports (see story, below right).

The majority of the surgeons (84 per cent) were able to identify at least one book they claimed to have consulted over the past 12 months, a far higher percentage than that for GPs (13 per cent). Just under half of the teachers (49 per cent), who were drawn from four schools (a mixed comprehensive, an infant school, a junior school and a primary), also said that they read books about educational research. Nine of these teachers were taking - or had taken - courses of training for researchers.

But the study's authors add: "From the evidence presented here, a significant minority of teachers do refer to books about research in education and this is not necessarily related to involvement in higher education in-service courses including a research training. Indeed, in the infant school surveyed, recent and relevant research was apparently reviewed by the staff as a whole on a regular basis, with meetings of staff and in-service events focused on research findings."

Fifteen of the teachers were also able to identify a piece of education research that they had found particularly relevant to their work or understanding of policy developments. The doctors' response to this question was more positive - 88 per cent of GPs and 64 per cent of surgeons being able to identify examples of helpful research.

A question canvassing views on the current state of educational and medical research drew a very wide range of responses. In general, surgeons strongly agreed that research helped to maintain high standards of clinical surgery. However, 14 surgeons (56 per cent) also agreed that the primary purpose for doing research was to enhance CVs.

Teachers' views on current research were much harder to categorise but many of them clearly believed they had too little time to keep abreast of research findings.

"One explanation which could be given for the different levels of involvement in research is that they are a function of the time available," the researchers conclude.

"Where the workload is defined in such a way that reading and undertaking research is possible more of it gets done. It may also be that GPs and teachers, unlike surgeons, do not need to prove that they have an interest in research or have publications to their names in order to obtain appointments. "

The researchers acknowledge that the teachers who did not respond to the survey might be more critical of educational research but they consider it significant that a minority of teachers would like to become more involved in research.

"It appears that the principal lesson of this study is that the way to raise the extent to which a profession is research-based is to prepare its members to be active researchers and to give them the necessary time, support and resources," Dr Hannan and his colleagues conclude. "Those engaged in such action research will, we suggest, be much more likely to seek evidence of previous findings, evidence which Hargreaves rightly argues needs to be made more accessible."

Dr Hannan can be contacted at the Faculty of Arts and Education, University of Plymouth, Douglas Avenue, Exmouth, Devon EX8 2AT e-mail: The full text of the paper can be read at the Educati on-line website


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